Like the fabled road to Oz, Connecticut's Shoreline Greenway Trail, will have an unusual and distinctive color: pink. The source of that delicate hue, crushed granite from the local Stony Creek quarry, was once used for the base of the Statue of Liberty, fitting given that each of the four towns that the trail traverses—East Haven, Branford, Guilford and Madison—have representatives in the trail's governing body in a system that was designed to be both democratic and inclusive from the outset.
"It was a decision made very early that the organization would not be run from the top down, but rather the bottom up," says longtime trail volunteer Joe Marshall.
"We realized that the relationships with the local towns would be the most important for the trail," says Chip Angle, a Guilford resident who was asked to chair the trail's board of directors because of his experience on the Board of Directors here at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC). "So we constructed the board to have town teams: two members from each town for a total of eight. Then we also had seven at-large members with the idea that the town teams could override the others if they got together."
Marshall, a resident of Guilford, brought the idea for the trail back with him from a trip to Rhode Island. His daughter lived in Barrington where she and her children often enjoyed a scenic rail-trail along the waterfront. Although most of the towns in Connecticut's shoreline region have a well-developed network of hiking trails, what was lacking was a multiuse trail that would be easily accessible for all fitness and skill levels.
From a small meeting on Marshall's back porch to discuss building something like that Rhode Island rail-trail here in New Haven County, momentum grew. The proposed 25-mile trail that eventually took shape from those early, informal meetings would parallel the shoreline of Long Island Sound as it passed through four towns from Lighthouse Point to Hammonasset Beach State Park.
"We all thought the idea was fabulous," says Pam Bisbee Simonds, who has lived in three of the four towns along the route and is vice chair of the outreach team for the trail. "I'm 75 and I've been biking the shoreline since I first moved here in 1961. I love biking, but the roads have become too dangerous for it. I have three kids and six grandkids, but I've had to discourage them from riding. I got involved because I wanted a safe route for them to ride."
In April 2002, a public meeting was held to determine the community's level of interest in the trail plan. It was a success: more than 100 people turned out on a cold and rainy night, and a nonprofit organization, Shoreline Greenway Trail, Inc., was formed to pursue the trail's development.
In addition to the volunteers at Shoreline Greenway Trail, Inc. (the organization has no paid staff), the longtime endeavor has been enthusiastically supported by the people it serves. School groups, boy scouts, gardening clubs, businesses, local organizations and others have cleared brush, planted native vegetation, picked up litter, raised funds, donated their professional skills, or helped build the trail in countless other ways. Bisbee Simonds says the group is often approached by people asking, "What can we do for the trail?"
But even with this support, without a rail corridor to follow, completing such a long trail out of piecemeal sections will prove challenging. The good news, however, is that the State of Connecticut has put together one of the most trail-supportive administrations in the country, headed by a governor and a department of transportation that have stated their belief that Connecticut has much to gain by investing in trails, biking and walking.
"Pedestrian and bicycle accommodations moved from a low priority to high priority over the last four to five years," says Tom Maziarz, bureau chief of policy and planning for Connecticut's Department of Transportation (ConnDOT). "The current transportation commissioner [James Redeker] has gone beyond the initial policies, charging us to put together a vision plan for the state of Connecticut focusing on how we can move forward to advance trail systems in the state."
The spine of ConnDOT's trails vision, which Maziarz says is part of a "fairly dramatic shift in the department's perspective of transportation, a shift from a highway agency to a multi-model agency," is the creation of a statewide trail, the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail (FCHT). Utilizing canal and railroad corridors, when complete the FCHT will stretch uninterrupted more than 80 miles from New Haven on the state's south coast, into Massachusetts across Connecticut's northern border.
The difficulty, however, as is often the case in the current fiscal climate, will be obtaining the money to build it. "It's tight in terms of transportation funding in general," says Maziarz. "About the time that we got into this new vision of trails, the financial status of our transportation projects fell flat. We lost access to the funding that we previously had to do these types of programs; we went from $12 million a year down to $8 million a year, but we're keeping our regional programs intact. We're making a commitment at the state agency to make up the shortfall."
This cross-state route of the FCHT, part of Connecticut's portion of the Maine-to-Florida East Coast Greenway, will begin just a few miles from the western terminus of the Shoreline Greenway Trail. Through his work with RTC, Angle has seen first-hand the many benefits that derive from bringing individual trails together into a connected system.
"We have to work with many types of landowners: from state to town governments to private owners to grant the rights-of-way," Angle says of what lies ahead for the Shoreline Greenway Trail. "Forty percent of the route is now identified and approved by the landowners."
Those approved sections are in varying degrees of finished. A few short segments are fully completed, others are only missing that final distinctive pink topping, and some are cleared of brush and only suitable for walking until more work is done. But, for both the townspeople and volunteers, the excitement of many years of effort finally becoming reality is palpable.
"We had a National Park Service grant and, at one of our annual meetings, a park service advisor came and gave a speech," says Angle. "In it, he likened building the trail to raising his son. He said it will be a 21-year project. We thought it couldn't take that long, but he was right."